Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body

This anthology looks at how humans, particularly those with ‘physical anomalies’, have been publicly exhibited for entertainment and profit throughout history. Apparently even in pharaonic Egypt dwarfs resided in the households of statesmen to provide entertainment and distraction from the burdensome duties of office. In ancient Greece birth defects were viewed as divine warnings of the future or past transgressions, while in the Middle Ages they were seen as examples of the wrath of God – “forms of divine punishment meted out to individuals, communities, or even nations” (Grosz 1996, p 57).

From the Middle Ages right up to the early 19th century, market day fairs included exhibits of people with physical and mental impairments, while peasants earned money by travelling around showing recently born babies that displayed birth defects (Gerber 1996, p 43). Lazarus Baptista Colloredo travelled through Europe in the 17th century, displaying himself and his brother Johannes, whose upper torso and left leg protruded upside down from Lazarus’ chest. Johannes could neither speak nor move of his own accord, but would squirm if a hand was placed on his chest.

With the onset of industrialisation and urbanisation, a need was created for more permanent forms of entertainment, and in the 1840s the commercial freak show was born in the US as entrepreneurs like P. T. Barnum sought to cash in on the captive audiences the cities provided. Access to spectacles of human deformity was thus made easier to a wider audience.

There is controversy over whether the contract between the impresario and the human exhibit was one of exploitation, or whether the impaired people were actually making the best of a situation, embracing their condition and earning an income as respectable performers: “freak show performers have been conceived as battlers against adversity and oppression who have refused to surrender themselves to shame and ostracism” (Gerber 1996, p 44).

Postcards and other souvenirs were also on sale at sideshow events, and the “popularity of these and other items afforded the freaks a convenient way to supplement their incomes, measure their own popularity, and break the boredom of the routine of the show” (Bogdan 1996, p 27).

According to Bogdan, ““Freak” is a way of thinking about and presenting people – a frame of mind and a set of practices” (ibid, p 24). Bogdan identifies two specific modes of presenting freaks – the ‘exotic’ and ‘aggrandized status’ that provided the promoters with the means to increase the exhibit’s appeal according to set formulae.

In the exotic mode, the person received an identity that appealed to people’s interest in the culturally strange, the primitive, the bestial, the exotic,” (ibid, p 28) as such, the narrative was built around the exhibit’s supposedly coming from a mysterious part of the world, while accompanying pseudoscientific writing increased the appeal and credibility. Many exotic exhibits had no physical impairments, but their difference was exaggerated by racist forms of presentation (Sarah Baartman). Gerber claims our fascination with physical difference is down to:

a psychological propensity to conceive of people with bodily anomalies as “infrahuman,” frightening but compelling throwbacks to our prehuman, animal origins. It has also been claimed that such people are mirror images of what we fear we might become, if our inchoate but deep-seated anxieties about violations to the integrity of our bodies were somehow realized” (Gerber 1996, pp 43-44).

This fits in with what other scholars have recognized (Sontag 1978, Halpern 1988, Gilman 1988, Wendell 1989, King 1993).

The exotic mode emphasized how different and, in most cases, how inferior the persons on exhibit were. The aggrandized mode reversed that by laying claim to the superiority of the freak” (Bogdan 1996, p 29). Exhibits were accorded prestigious titles such as ‘Captain’, ‘Major’, ‘Prince’ or ‘Princess’ to make them appear culturally superior. Thus we have the famed ‘General’ Tom Thumb, and ‘Prince’ Randian:

Performances in the aggrandized status mode were of two types. The first involved doing tasks that one might assume could not be done by a person with that particular disability. A person without legs, for example, might show how he walked with his arms. The emphasis was on how the person exhibited compensated for the disability. The second kind of performance was more standard show business. Freaks sang, danced, and played musical instruments, emphasizing their conventional talents and accomplishments,” (ibid, p 30).

These are the supercrips, the inspiration porn stars. This is where I need to be careful with my presentation of Dinara doing embroidery with her feet. Although she is compensating for the inability to use her arms, I don’t want to present her as an aggrandized freakshow exhibit!

Boasting about the normalcy of the freak’s spouse was another technique of the aggrandized presentation. Many of the photographic portraits of freaks sold at exhibits pose them with their families against a sitting room backdrop with stuffed chairs and other symbols of middle-class aspirations. “True life” booklets and the lecturers’ descriptions sometimes dwelled on the exhibits’ family roles and the spouses’ and children’s accomplishments. Presentation of freaks who were children stressed the normalcy of the parents and siblings, who sometimes were displayed with the freak,” (ibid, p 30).

Again, this is something that I have been aiming at, but something that may be perceived as aggrandized representation of the participants! On the other hand, we will not be boasting about the normalcy of spouse and children, just mentioning them in the context of other areas of interest.

Within the freak show modes of representation, “the manufacture and management of disability images for profit,” there was no room for pity: people spent their leisure time and money wishing to be entertained, not to be confronted with the suffering of others. Although the concept of exotic human exhibits may offend contemporary tastes, it conformed to the prevailing ideas of the time: imperialism, racism and social Darwinism. Humans were exhibited as exotic shows well into the 20th century, as this picture of a Congolese girl from the 1958 Brussels World Fair demonstrates:

Bogdan feels that as sideshow exhibits, freaks found a refuge from a society that did not accept them and offered no social security or meaningful employment. At the very least they were offered a livelihood and acceptance, while the most accomplished achieved fame and fortune. He insists that the word ‘freak’ meant nothing to those employed in the entertainment business, since they did not take seriously any label from the uninitiated public:

As freaks sat on the platform, most looked down on the audience with contempt – not because they felt angry at being gawked at or at being called freaks, but simply because the amusement world looked down on “rubes” in general. Their contempt was that of insiders toward the uninitiated. For those in the amusement world the sucker who came to the show was on the outside, not the exhibit. I have not used the term “freak” to mean people who have certain physical conditions. “Freak” is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people. It is not a person but the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation,” (ibid, p 35).

In this sense, the freaks were working in conjunction with the promoters – the main idea was to make money in the entertainment business. As such, the images were created to appeal as much as possible to the buying public. With a shift in values and individual rights, such displays are viewed as exploitative and dehumanizing, but Bogdan sees the gap filled by service agencies. Although they are not selling entertainment, the use of disabled imagery to raise funds is very similar. He recommends not taking imagery at face value:

The job of those who want to serve people seen as disabled or different is to get behind the scenes, to know them as they see themselves, not as they are presented. Presentations are artifacts of changing social institutions, organizational formations, and world views. To understand the presentations, to become dislodged from their hold on our reality, we have to trace their origins and understand their place in the world as it is presently constructed,” (ibid, pp 35-36).

So according to Bogdan I am on the right track – getting to know disabled people and find out how they view themselves and wish to be presented, which will help dislodge representations that have little to do with reality.

David Gerber claims that Bogdan’s view of the entertainment business is incorrect, and any relationship between promoter and performer is necessarily one of exploitation. Using the example of Charles Sherwood Stratton (General Tom Thumb) as an example, he disagrees with Bogdan’s opinion that the affluent performer was independent and content, instead asserting that he was “tragic, a prisoner of conditions over which he, as a dwarf, had little control and that both profited and humiliated him” (Gerber 1996, p 51). Introduced at an early age into the profession, by the time Stratton had developed the intellectual capacity to understand his situation it was already too late for him to do anything about it. Gerber’s essay seems to contain a lot of conjecture and little evidence. He does introduce a very relevant concept, though, which concerns an analysis of consent theory. In an age before the advent of disability rights advocacy and the independent living movement, can disabled people who were then employed as sideshow exhibits really be understood as having fully consented to being displayed as freaks?

Taking his cue from Don Herzog (Happy Slaves 1989 – look up!), Gerber advises exercising caution with the following regarding consent:

1. We cannot necessarily infer consciousness from behavior in appraising the motivations behind choice, and thus in taking the measure of consent. Apparently voluntary choices may be products of volition, but also of apathy, which leads to refusing to appraise all alternatives, or simply of a lack of alternatives.

2. Consent may not explain the condition of a person who appears to be content with a bad situation. She may not understand her situation, let alone how she came to it, or she may lack the motivation to change a situation she knows to be bad.

3. Choice, Herzog says, is like opening Pandora’s box: “If you chose to open the box, does it follow that you’ve chosen each and every one of its contents?” We need to remember, in other words, that there may be unintended and often undesired consequences from any course of action, which we would not choose if they were presented to us individually.” (ibid, p 42)

In this sense consent may appear to be exercising the capacity of autonomous choice, but has to be examined against other factors, cultural and political, as well as relevant knowledge and awareness among those who are purportedly ‘choosing’ to consent. This is probably one of the most astute observations of the concept of consent that I have come across. The basic criteria for consent, informed or otherwise, are thus thrown into question.

Elizabeth Grosz sees the label ‘freak’ as defining social marginalisation and not necessarily disability, and in a similar way to other negative epithets (e.g. ‘queer’) “may function as an act of defiance, a political gesture of self-determination” (1996, p56).

Freaks are not just unusual or atypical; more than this is necessary to characterize their unique social position. The freak is thus neither unusually gifted nor unusually disadvantaged. He or she is not an object of simple admiration or pity, but is a being who is considered simultaneously and compulsively fascinating and repulsive, enticing and sickening” (ibid, p56).

Freaks typically inherit their difference genetically or it develops in utero. As they have lived with their difference since developing as conscious beings, Arbus‘ remark that they are ‘the aristocrats’ of trauma (social marginalization) makes sense: rather than attempting to fit in socially as most people strive to do from an early age, freaks would have pretty much accepted their difference and social rejection very early on.

The freak is an object of simultaneous horror and fascination because, in addition to whatever infirmities or abilities he or she exhibits, the freak is an ambiguous being whose existence imperils categories and oppositions dominant in social life. Freaks are those human beings who exist outside and in defiance of the structure of binary oppositions that govern our basic concepts and modes of self-definition” (ibid, p 57)

Freaks are situated between poles of difference that structure our basic understanding of the world: human/animal, male/female, adult/child, civilization/wilderness. Existing in stark contrast to what we have been conditioned to accept as human ‘norms’, freaks (like queers) thus “imperil the very definitions we rely on to classify humans, identities, and sexes – our most fundamental categories of self-definition and boundaries dividing self from otherness” (ibid, p 57).

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that although our horror results from imagining how terrible life must be as a freak, this is an opinion not shared by the freaks themselves: “Ironically, the linkages between conjoined twins, which seem so pitiable and horrifying to us, are not considered problematic by the twins themselves” (ibid, p 63). This accords with mistaken perceptions of quality of life that I found reported elsewhere.

In attempting to answer the question of why we view freaks with a dual mixture of horror and fascination, Grosz proposes that our initial reaction is caused by “a perverse kind of sexual curiosity” wondering how they do it, and what kind of sex lives they lead. Perhaps this says more about Grosz’s personal reaction than it does about broader public attitudes!

In conclusion, Grosz states that the freak disrupts our narcissistic perception of our own body image, and threatens the boundaries of what we understand as our identities.

Fascination with the monstrous is testimony to our tenuous hold on the image of perfection. The freak confirms the viewer as bounded, belonging to a “proper” social category. The viewer’s horror lies in the recognition that this monstrous being is at the heart of his or her own identity, for it is all that must be ejected or abjected from self-image to make the bounded, category-obeying self possible” (ibid, p 65)

This echoes what Garland-Thomson wrote in her essay comparing the freak show and beauty contest: that such images serve to reassure us, reaffirming our sense of belonging to the ‘normal’ portion of society. What Arbus did was to undermine the very concept of what that portion of society actually consisted of. Ultimately we are all freaks in some way!


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